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Tuesday, 08 March 2011


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I would say that it is because it brings out the texture in the scene. Look at the image above, you can almost feel the smooth silk tie and the difference in the feel between the two suits.

I seem to recall fMRI studies that show that when you imagine things, you actually use the part of the brain that would be used if you actually experience that sensation. It could be that B&W actually involves more areas of the brain than color.

(It would make an interesting fMRI study)

This is a film I really enjoy and the whole mood and framing of the shots, I think, just would not work nearly as well in colour. Black and white has definitely added a value to the production by taking away the distraction of colour. To my mind many films that are really worth seeing would work as effectively, if not more so, in monochrome.

Actually Roger didn't shoot the film in black & white.

As per Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Man_Who_Wasn't_There
Though a black and white film, The Man Who Wasn't There was shot in color and transferred to black and white. Some prints were accidentally released with the first couple of reels in color. Color DVDs of the film are available in Europe and Japan.

Black and White is the still photographer's friend, too. Many times when shooting a furnished interior, I've been confronted with something like a bright orange couch. In color, it's a likely distraction from the aim of the shot. Black and White renders such potential scene stealers as harmless grays.

Maybe the more-real aura associated with B&W as opposed to color is from historical perspective on the part of the viewer. Works in B&W put us in a world of line and shadow that turns back the clock. The past is often seen as more authentic, less contrived than the present. A time when you could believe what you saw. Reading a few old newspapers will correct that viewpoint but that's beside the issue.

Funny how several of the Coen brother's films are in my absolute favorites but for completely different reasons...'Oh Brother...', ...'Lebowski', this one...

The thing is, every time I watch 'The Man Who Wasn't There' I have a desperate need to cough and clear my lungs with breaths of fresh air...

Echoing what KeithB says - I also seem to recall that the way, and sequence, in which the brain processes visual information is heavily weighted towards things like shape, proximity, reflectance rather than colour. Other studies show I think that eyewitness reports are very unreliable with regard to colour in comparison to other aspects of a scene. Rather vague assertions I admit without some references, but maybe someone else knows more. Of course, we don't perceive a two dimensional image in the same way that we do real life either. Photos are perceived in 2 dimensions, but are movies?

Can't speak for film making, but here's my pragmatic reason for working in B&W on still images:

I don't have to muck about with white balance.

Seriously. Color adds another dimension to still images, meaning more time tweaking and fiddling with color calibration and hue and saturation.

When I reduce the time spent on the aspect of color, I can spend more time on subtlety of light and shadow, creating and shaping the mood of the image. B&W truly is an art form, because by placing the limit of no color you reduce a scene to its essence, much like the difference between photography or painting and sculpture.

That said, some images MUST be 'graphed in color. Rainbows, f'rex, or a field of Golden California poppies, or brilliant red-orange light on El Capitan, or the "neon orange" glow of Horsetail Falls. Scenes like those are why color film was invented.

But B&W images can teach us that even in a monochrome moral code, there is no black or white, but infinite shades of gray.

Sorry, Uncle Ansel, the Zone System is infinite, and not limited to 10 zones.

Black and white can look like a million bucks in an exhibition quality print or up on the silver screen, it can also look like absolute crap in a cheap print (on a wall or screen), worse than a bad color repro since you already have less to work with. I also noticed that in group shows featuring both B&W and color prints side by side, the color print will automatically dominate the B&W print no matter the subject matter or how well the latter is printed. It's almost instinctive.

Of course, there's always the old axiom that we relate to B&W intellectually and color emotionally...

Not a direct comment on B&W, but rather on Coen Bros. films...I saw True Grit and liked it a lot, and understand that it was the most successful Coen Bros. film at the box office, by quite a substantial margin...but the film is beginning to fade in my memory, already, while Fargo and Big Lebowski and Blood Simple are still very clear.

As for The Man Who Wasn't There, I never liked it much. For me, the critical part of film is Story, not Look -- Look has always seemed to me to be equivalent of fancy typefaces, or non-standard punctuation, in novels -- not particularly relevant to the essential purpose of the enterprise. Of course, I suppose you could argue that the Look *was* the essential purpose of The Man Who Wasn't There, and that Story was secondary...but that probably tells you why it wasn't a particularly successful film, in terms of sales (Box Office: $7.4m.)

Although I like B/W, I still think that the photographic world of today would be significantly different if the early technology and economics had favored, say, red-and-yellow pictures.

I'm not sure about the comment by Softie, specifically with respect to "modernist sensibility". As a postulation the concept of modernist sensibitly has, like many architectural/art concepts, been around the block so often that it has lost its way. In any event the black and white photograph crosses over greater time and space and fits comfortably into many niches.
I create black and white images and look at black and white images, simply because I like them.

Now I know why Harry Warner said what he said ...

I think "Man Who Wasn't There" is, overall, unsuccessful as a work of art. I think the reason has to do with something you and I were just discussing...the satisfaction of the ending. The film has a very poor ending in my opinion, and one that is incredibly unsatisfying from any angle--be it artistic, fate-of-the-character, or just from a standpoint of consistency with the rest of the film. I imagine that's why it did so poorly at the box office. That and the fact that it's essentially quiet and slow-moving, despite the occasional violence.

I will admit that while I loved its look, I'm not sure the great beauty of it really contributed to the story. The steady procession of classic shots and stylish angles and chiaroscuro lighting does have a sort of pour-it-on quality. They might have been better served with a more plainspoken cinematography that only got ravishing when the story needed it, rather than ravishing-all-the-time. I mean, even Ed Crane sitting on his couch was a memorable shot, visually speaking.


We use only brightness for seeing shape and recognition, not color. Color is mostly for determining the quality of stuff - is that apple ripe or not, that sort of thing. Strip away the color and you make the image less distracting for the shape-related areas of the brain.

There's a neat experiment (unfortunately impossible to show over the net): An image of a bicycle printed in red, against a green background. Normally you have no problem seeing the bicycle.

But adjust the color of the light just right, and the red and the green will have the same luminance. At that point people just can't see the bicycle any more. They can see the borders between the colors, they can trace it with their fingers, but they are unable to make out what it is.

Here is what I believe in and this is from a guy who shoots with both vintage equipment loaded B&W film and the latest digital cameras. If the subject is as much about color as as the subject itself then damn shoot it in color. I love bold complimentry color. Shooting good color is every bit as tough as shooting good B&W. The blues and greens of nature are not always the best combination.

For me there is no right or wrong. What works best works best.

Well, as usual there are some very wise and profound comments already in this thread.

Colour has enormous semiotic significance. It relates to memories of culture, place, temperature, smell, sickness, health, taste and even sound; it can convey fear, danger, comfort or love, despondency or joy. It transcends the purely visual and links all the senses and emotions at a subconscious level.

Artists are taught this as soon as they pick up a brush. How much of the world's great art is in black and white?

I wonder if it's just our fond and romantic association with old films and early photography that has created a particular semiotic attachment? Or maybe it's because so many men have poor colour vision;)

Don't get me wrong, I love looking through old photographs, but when I see black and white today, I just assume it was taken before 1970 until I do the double take.

Admittedly, sometimes it just works. It has its place and when exploited to its strengths can make a powerful statement, but when all said and done, B&W has a very limited and specific emotional gamut that is predominantly retrospective.

An awful lot of contemporary black and white work looks like someone simply desaturated a colour photo to make it look artistic, but actually it simply looks pointlessly old fashioned and souless - a retro-chic style choice like a BMW Mini.

Working in colour is emotionally, and technically, much harder. Colour film had many restrictions but digital has revolutionised colour photography, both in terms of realism and the potential for manipulation, but that opportunity is still crying out for true, artistic expression.

IMHO, of course ;)

"So if you photograph for meaning, colors are arbitrary"
No, they are not. Each color carries a lot of meaning. Here's a brief introduction to the topic: http://www.princetonol.com/groups/iad/lessons/middle/color2.htm

"It's very different from art (or color in the studio), where you can choose what colors to use and make them intentional."
It's the same. You consciously choose whether or not to shoot a particular color arrangement in a particular light and you can rearrange or modify the elements of the composition. You can change the colors with gelled flashes and “paint” with hand-held color light sources. Also, you can change the colors in post-processing.

You're not getting what I'm saying. Unfortunately, however, I don't have time to write on this topic at length any time soon. It's a difficult topic to write about, because peoples' knee-jerk reaction is that I'm simply attacking color, which is not the case, and it takes some careful explaining to overcome that reaction.


Paul Pomeroy commented "You cannot do this the other way around; you can't keep the right colors and use the wrong values."

Maybe, but this is what Monet did in his paintings. He employed "equiluminance". A notable example is "Impression: Sunrise" where the lightness value of the sun is almost identical to that of the dark sky surrounding it. I recently wrote about this in Human Vision & Our Perception of Visual Art.


Luminance can play some funny tricks on our vision (illusions).

All photography is abstract. Color photography pretends to be real but is not. B&W photography is abstract but admits it. I cannot remember who said that but it rang like a dinnerbell in my head.
Some subjects just work in color or B&W when you find one do it.


"The sharp contrast, for example, of the magenta on yellow on the lit side of her face completely disappears when desaturated because the values of the two colors are almost identical."

The brightness values of the yellow and and the magenta are not the same. Far from it. Desaturating the image in RGB mode gives a wrong result.

Convert the image from RGB mode to L.a.b. mode; now you can analyze colours and luminance separately with the eyedropper tool. The yellow of the cheek is about twice as bright as the magenta patch.

Now, desaturate the image in L.a.b. mode and the resulting greyscale image will show the luminance of the different (former) colours correctly. The contrast in brightness between what was yellow and magenta is accurately retained.

This is how you would perceive the painting under very, very low light when the eye's retina has to rely on the rods alone.

It's hard to beat Woody Allen's "Manhattan" for beautiful B&W cinematography.

[Shot by Gordon Willis. —Ed.]

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